Héctor Martínez Motiño, president of a local sectional union of Workers of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (SITRAUNAH), was murdered Tuesday, shot by gunmen as he drove home from work.
Martínez Motiño, a lecturer at the Choluteca campus of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, in the south of the country, had faced three other attempts on his life and numerous anonymous threats, the result of his reporting of violations of human and worker rights within the university.
He took his complaints of harassment to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which issued a “precautionary measure” demanding that the Honduran government provide protection for him and his family as his union work put him in danger. The Commission “may request that a State adopt precautionary measures to prevent irreparable harm to persons or to the subject matter of the proceedings in connection with a pending petition or case, as well as to persons under the jurisdiction of the State concerned, independently of any pending petition or case.”
Despite these measures, Martínez Motiño reported feeling unsafe. On Facebook, he posted: “Despite these measures, I continue to be harassed, followed, threatened and the target of attempts against my life. I ask God and all of you to keep us in permanent prayer.”
According to news reports, he had no police protection at the time of the attack. With this murder, 14 people with protective measures have been assassinated, according to the website Defensores en Línea. On April 8, Donatilo Jiménez, president of another local sectional union of university workers SITRAUNAH from the Atlantic Coast, was kidnapped and disappeared; to date, only his vehicle has been found. An MS-13 gang leader has been arrested in connection with this crime.
Martínez Motiño was a member of the Honduran Network Against Anti-Union Violence, an effort of labor union activists and the human rights non-governmental organization ACI-Participa, supported by the Solidarity Center. The network, Honduran labor movement and ACI-Participa condemn the “vile murder” and are demanding a full investigation.
Thousands of Guatemalans turned out on May Day this year to protest violence against union members and demand worker rights. Credit: Stephen Wishart
Guatemalan trade union leaders met with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman in Guatemala City today to express their frustration with the failure of the Guatemalan government to make any meaningful progress in protecting worker rights.
The meeting took place as Guatemala neared the deadline for complying with a “Labor Action Plan” it signed with the United States in April 2013. The United States granted Guatemala a four-month extension earlier this year. Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO first raised concerns about egregious labor rights violations in Guatemala in a joint complaint filed in 2008 under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
The union leaders told Froman that the government has failed to improve worker rights since the complaint was filed six years ago and in fact, the situation for workers in Guatemala has deteriorated in recent years.
Seventy-two unionists have been murdered in Guatemala since CAFTA was implemented.
“One of the main challenges in achieving labor justice in Guatemala are the high levels of impunity and lack of accountability of those public officials responsible for ensuring respect for labor rights,” said Victoriano Zacarias, deputy general secretary of the Confederacion Central de Trabajadores de Guatemala (Central Confederation of Guatemalan Workers, CGTG).
“Moreover, the bills before Congress on labor issues in Guatemala, if approved, will result only in more labor rights violations and further facilitate greater migration to the U.S. for lack of basic conditions of labor rights.” Zacarias was among union leaders taking part in today’s meeting.
Another participant in the meeting, Carlos Mancilla, general secretary of theConfederacion Unitaria Sindical de Guatemala (United Trade Union Confederation of Guatemala, CUSG), said “the government of Guatemala has no political will to solve the existing labor problems.”
“The government of Guatemala has stated it has made advances, but the only progress has been creating roundtable discussions that have not provided solutions to labor problems, and the establishment of agreements and protocols that are not implemented.”
“This year, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) named Guatemala the most dangerous place in the world to be a union leader,” said Solidarity Center Country Program Director Stephen Wishart, who attended the meeting. “So we’re pleased to see that Ambassador Froman is taking the issue of worker rights seriously and meeting with the unions to hear their side.”
Wishart said that Guatemalan unions will continue to press their government to live up to its labor rights commitments, and added, “The Solidarity Center will stand with our union partners in Guatemala as they keep up their fight for worker rights, safety and decent jobs for Guatemalan workers.”
Honduran union leader Victor Crespo is among Central American unionists threatened with death. Credit: IUF
The murder last week of Victor Manuel Crespo Puerto, father of Honduran union leader Victor Crespo, is the latest in a deadly turn for trade unionists in Central America. Already this year, two unionists have received death threats in Honduras, one unionist has been murdered in El Salvador and, in Guatemala, one unionist has been murdered and 11 others fired upon.
Since 2009, the year of the presidential coup in Honduras, 31 trade unionists, 57 rural workers and 28 journalists have been murdered there. This anti-union violence is part of climate of violence that gives Honduras the distinction of being the nation with the world’s highest per capital murder rate. Not coincidentally, Honduras also has the highest income inequality in Latin America.
Guatemala, where 65 trade unionists have been assassinated since 2009, now has surpassed Colombia as the most deadly nation in the world for union members. Most recently, Marlon Dagoberto Vásqez Lόpez, 19, a member of the construction worker union was murdered in January. Also last month, gunfire was sprayed on 11 members of the banana worker union as they held a meeting. The National Police never came to the crime scene and no one has been jailed for any such murders in recent years.
The murders and death threats are the culmination of “widespread violations” of workers’ most basic rights, said Stephen Benedict, director of the Human and Trade Union Rights department at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Workers “daily contend with harassment, interventions from employers and government officials in union matters and ultimately death threats and assassinations.”
Crespo, leader of the port workers union Sindicato Gremial de Trabajadores del Muelle (SGTM), was threatened with death and in September, his home was attacked by armed men yelling that he should “stop making noise organizing stevedores.” He left the country soon after. His father and other family members were targeted this week by an armed assailant who ran them down.
Crespo’s colleagues in SGTM leadership are now receiving death threats. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and SGTM believe they are connected to the union’s lawful request for a collective bargaining agreement at the port and workers’ request to receive their legally-required benefits. Despite meetings between the ITF and Honduran security and government officials, the government has taken no serious action to increase security nor act on SGTM’s requests for a collective bargaining agreement.
Other incidents in Honduras since January 1 include:
- Increasingly frequent and specific death threats against José Maria Martinez of the FESTAGRO banana and agricultural worker federation. Martínez, host of a daily trade union radio show for the past 20 years, worked closely with workers at the Tres Hermanas banana plantations as they pushed to win a collective bargaining agreement in the face of harsh employer repression.
- Intimidation and a death threat directed at Nolvia Aracely Paz Rivera, a member of the construction workers’ union SIGTRACOH and community leader in Cofradia. Hooded gunmen have circled her home where she lives with her three children. SIGTRACOH, a Solidarity Center ally, has been active in the community, meeting with workers interested in community development as well as broader engagement to restore democracy in the country. Members of the union have faced harassment, threats and violence.
Last November, Serafin Alas, another SIGTRACOH member in Cofradia, was murdered. Jacinto Cortez, an informal construction worker from the community, was killed earlier last year. Union leaders say nearby police have delayed their responses from 20 minutes to two hours after they receive calls for help.
The Solidarity Center joins Honduran and Guatemalan labor federations and the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA-CSA) in demanding prompt investigations of these attacks against union members, and has urged the governments of both countries to find the perpetrators and define a policy and actions to guarantee the life and physical integrity of union members and freedom of association.
A Guatemalan banana worker.
Earlier this month, on January 5, Guatemala’s first homicide of the new year took the life of 19-year-old Marlon Dagoberto Vásquez López, an active youth leader and member of the construction workers’ union, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Construcción y Servicios de Guatemala (SINCS-G). His murder brought to 65 the toll of trade unionists assassinated in the country since 2007. Most of their murders have gone unsolved, making Guatemala the most deadly place to be a union member, after Colombia.
The Solidarity Center works with SINCS-G and other Central American unions.
Last Friday, 11 members of the banana worker union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Agropecuaria Omagua, S.A. Campo Verde I y II, held a meeting at their headquarters in Izabal, Guatemala. As they held their meeting, an unknown vehicle approached from the highway fronting the Honduran border and unleashed gunfire upon the plantation workers, shooting Juan DeDios Sagastume Rodas, secretary general for the union. Despite being immediately informed of the attack, the National Police never appeared at the crime scene and waited until the following day to interview the victim at the hospital.
Over the past three years, seven banana union leaders have been murdered in Guatemala. The country has recently committed to a Labor Enforcement Plan as it attempts to avoid arbitration for violating the labor chapter of the CAFTA-DR free-trade agreement. The U.S. government filed the labor complaint in April 2008 based on evidence provided by six Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO. The Guatemalan government also committed to the Workers’ Group of the International Labor Organization “to ensure the safety of workers, with effective measures to protect union members and leaders, and their property, from violence and threats.”
The astounding violence of the first weeks of 2014 against trade unionists in Guatemala must end. The American labor movement joins Guatemalan union federation UNISTRAGUA and the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA-CSA) to demand President Otto Pérez Molina ensure prompt investigations of these attacks against union members, find the perpetrators and define a policy and actions to guarantee the life and physical integrity of union members and freedom of association
Workers rally for justice for murdered trade unionists during May Day events in Guatemala City. Credit: Stephen Wishart
Worker rights groups are urging the Guatemalan government to bring justice to the families of the more than 56 trade union leaders killed in the past three years. No one has ever been convicted in Guatemala for killing a union leader.
The Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) has written to President Otto Perez Molina asking for action to resolve the murders of union leaders and for a commitment to guarantee the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. TUCA, the regional structure of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), represents more than 50 million workers.
In the letter, TUCA states the murders and the numerous acts of torture, kidnappings, raids and death threats have created a culture of fear and violence throughout the country accompanied by an unrelenting series of violations of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
TUCA also writes that the global trade union movement was surprised by the 2013 Report by the International Labor Organization Committee of Experts which cited the government’s progress in resolving numerous cases.
“While progress was reported in these cases, the report fails to share information on concrete results or sentences in a single case. Of most concern is that of the 58 killings admitted by the government over the last six years, only in two cases has the government declared trade union activities as the motive. The other deaths are included among the so-called common crimes such as ‘extortion,’ ‘personal differences’ or ‘crimes of passion.’”
Over the past 20 years, the international community has appealed to the Guatemalan government to address serious human rights violations, to little effect. In addition, Guatemalan unions have sent detailed recommendations for improved labor rights compliance to its government, filed under the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) complaint process. In 2008, six Guatemalan trade unions filed a complaint about the suppression of worker rights under the trade agreement. The case advanced to the dispute resolution phase in 2011 and is still pending.
TUCA writes that the Rios Montt verdict, “achieved through a profound mobilization of Guatemalan civil society, must now be consolidated, and extended to all sectors of society who suffer the weight decades of violence and impunity. The labor movement, in particular, continues to be one of the main targets of this repression.”